Coming off the heels of Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock outdoes himself with Lifeboat, the quintessential bottle episode. That’s a TV term and I don’t know of a film term with the same meaning. Maybe ‘lifeboat’ movie? Is that already a thing and I don’t know it? The premise is as simple as it is genius, a handful of people on a leaky lifeboat are going to save themselves by any means necessary… unless those means require cooperating with a Nazi.
The movie begins in the mutually assured wreckage of both the merchant ship and a Nazi U-boat. Characters quickly emerges from the flotsam forming our small shipwrecked cast. Each character personifies a national identity or political concept relevant to a WWII audience. Alice Mackenzie is an army nurse who represents America’s wartime women tirelessly working to put damaged men back together before they return to the fight. Combat medicine is one of the only options available to a woman looking to pitch in so Alice took the job, even if she’s squeamish around blood. Charles J. Rittenhouse, a millionaire businessman who’s anticipating an economic boom after this war to match the boom after the First World War. His priority is advancing his own wealth even if a few million strangers die along the way (75-85 million people, just so you don’t forget). John Kovac is the tough as nails know-it-all-American who’s all too ready to fight anyone to the death for peace. And Willi, the only surviving crew member of the Nazi ship represents Germany on the world stage of this lifeboat-earth. There are more characters representing more factions of our global society but you should watch the movie yourself and think about what or who they represent.
Lifeboat is, among many things, a sobering meditation on humanity at war. I don’t mean the human race at war as one might expect from the totality of the name World War II, I mean humanity. I believe this is Lifeboat‘s main theme. What do you do with a Nazi murderer at your mercy? Do you throw him overboard and watch him drown? Would that be justice for the blood on his hands? Do you keep him alive as a prisoner of war? Do you share precious food and water rations with the man who put you in this lifeboat to begin with? He’s the learned Captain of the German U-boat, but can you rely on his navigation skills? What if he doesn’t lead you to safety? Can you trust him?
Tensions are bound to come to a boil when so many interests and ideologies are forced to interact in the lifeboat’s tiny microcosm of humanity, exactly as Hitchcock planned. The script camouflages poignant social criticism as a simple shipwreck story suggesting if we as a global society cannot coexist we’ll surely drown. My favorite moment comes when Rittenhouse assumes an informal command and begins running the ship like a business, quietly assigning tasks and taking stock of their salvaged supplies when Kovac challenges his authority on the grounds that he wasn’t elected skipper. The characters go around weighing the merits of each castaway deemed eligible for leadership ending in Kovac threatening violence against anyone who’d dare challenging him for the position. None of the castaways see Kovac’s strong-armed ascent to power as an ironic hypocrisy when considered against his vehement argument against taking the Nazi’s navigation advice because of his fascist loyalties. This is the subtle genius of Hitchcock.
Oh no, did I say Hitchcock? How embarassing. I misspoke, I mean the screenplay’s author John Steinbeck. You remember Steinbeck from High School literature right? The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and any number of other classics titles beginning with capitalized articles, prepositions or cardinal directions. Apparently Steinbeck took umbrage with Lifeboat‘s less than stellar critical reception at the time of its release. Steinbeck resented the blame and retaliated by sending critics copies of his original script to illustrate precisely where Hitchcock and company deviated from his masterwork.
I’m being cheeky, I really enjoyed Lifeboat and enthusiastically recommend it to you. It reminded me of a family trip to the Universal Studios tour in Los Angels when I was 12. The tour featured, among many other filmmaking wonders, a large water tank set not unlike those used to shoot Lifeboat. They’re basically big swimming pools with enormous blue or green screens behind them. In 1944 they used rear projection screens to complete the illusion of being lost at sea in Lifeboat before chromakeying became commonplace like in Life of Pi. Seeing the ordinariness of those sets destroyed a little bit of movie magic, but it also makes apparent the courage of restricting a film to one such set entirely. Imagine the ingenuity it takes to storyboard an hour and a half’s worth of shots all taking place in one small lifeboat. How do you do that without boring the audience? I don’t know how to do it, but Hitchcock did.
I’m looking forward to absorbing his subsequent films. He appears to be taking great strides towards becoming the master of suspense with Saboteur and Lifeboat. However, I stand by my criticisms of Hitchcock’s pension for unrealistic plots in realistic settings and his tendency to routinely depict his female leads as resisting the advances of their male counterparts only to inevitably wise up and fall madly in love. It happens in almost all of his films up to this point and Lifeboat is no exception. It’s such a persistent trope one must stop to ponder if Hitchcock used his films to excise a deep resentment towards the women who rejected him. He’d be irresistible if only he had complete creative control over reality. It’s so much easier when they behave because they can’t say no, right? Yeah, I’m suggesting Alfred Hitchcock was an incel. If you think that’s unfairly harsh then I politely suggest you google Tippi Hedren’s account of her relationship with Hitchcock.